LARAMIE — Five years ago, Chelsea-Victoria Turner was battling drug and alcohol addiction while living on the streets of Cheyenne. It got worse. She ended up spending time in jail.
Today, the University of Wyoming junior is a 2023 Udall Scholar, one of just 55 people nationwide to receive the award this year.
Each year, the Udall Foundation awards scholarships of $7,000 each to college sophomores and juniors for leadership, public service and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment. Within the Department of Plant Sciences, Turner is majoring in plant production and protection, with a concentration in agroecology and evolution. She also is pursuing minors in botany and soil science.
“Receiving this scholarship is like a nod of approval from the universe, for which I am so grateful. This scholarship means that we do recover, and life transformational changes are possible,” Turner says. “This scholarship means to me to keep up the good work and to continue living by my heart. This means that I can be the person that my loved ones always knew I could — which means I have made them proud. I have made myself proud. I still can’t believe it, but I am grateful from the deepest part of my soul out to my fingertips and will continue with the gratitude of this blessing forever in my heart.”
“Udall Scholars are remarkable because of their palpable desire to impact our world,” says John Koprowski, dean of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources who served as the lead on the Udall Scholar nomination process for UW. “Chelsea-Victoria presented such a compelling and, truthfully, inspiring case of her passion to make a difference in the challenges that our environment faces in the future with the commitment forged by the challenges of her past. One can only be optimistic about our future when such talented and dedicated scholars are revealed.”
In her short time at UW, Turner has an extensive list of environmental research activities in which she has participated.
From fall 2021 until she moved to Laramie during summer 2022, she worked for UW’s Sheridan Research and Extension Center (ShREC) under Donna Harris, a UW assistant professor of plant sciences, and Brian Mealor, an associate professor of plant sciences and director of ShREC.
Over the cooler months, Turner helped Harris grow beans and peas in the greenhouse to have more seeds for planting. When spring arrived, those seeds were grown in the field.
“Dr. Harris is looking at a variety of things, such as which pea species are the most drought-tolerant and are the best nitrogen fixers,” Turner says. “While working at ShREC, I also was able to go into the field to do invasive grass mapping, since some new, nasty invasives have been found in Sheridan County. I also was able to be a part of the native seed program where we would scout for the desired native plants and then return to those areas when the seed was able to be collected.”
“Chelsea’s passion for the environment and sustainable management intersects with her true love of learning, which allows her to succeed in her academic pursuits,” Mealor says. “She thinks deeply about her relationship to the natural world and society — especially how she might go about to better the lives of others by what she learns. During her time in our program, she gave me the opportunity to think about my science, and its communication, through a different lens. I look forward to watching her excel in her career moving forward.”
When she moved to Laramie from Sheridan, Turner was hired as a research assistant in both Linda van Diepen’s soil ecology lab and Kelsey Brock’s invasive plant informatics lab. For van Diepen, a UW associate professor of ecosystem science and management, Turner is looking at mycorrhizal colonization in the roots of plants sampled from both herbicide-treated and untreated areas. For Brock, a UW assistant professor of plant sciences and extension weed specialist (invasive plants), Turner has helped compile lists of invasive plants from areas that have a similar climate to Wyoming. The goal is to determine whether any of those plants could be potential invaders in the state.
“She is one of the most driven and hardest-working people I have ever met,” Brock says of Turner. “She does research in multiple labs; teaches; acquires new employable skills; tackles multiple degree majors; and sets wheels in motion to plot her career trajectory far in advance.
“Chelsea possesses a breadth of knowledge and creativity that allows her to envision unique ways to address environmental problems,” Brock continues. “Her plans often span multiple scientific disciplines and engage the community with genuine human warmth. I am excited to follow her career and watch her put these ideas into practice, and I am grateful to the Udall Scholarship for supporting the development of an excellent scientist.”
If she isn’t busy enough, Turner also volunteered at the Rocky Mountain Herbarium on campus before she was hired there. She also is a teaching assistant for an Agroecology 1000 course taught by Randa Jabbour, a UW associate professor of plant sciences.
This summer, she will work for Piney Island Conservation Services, a restoration company located in Story. Additionally, Turner will take part in a research project for the Rocky Mountain Herbarium under David Tank, a UW professor of botany.
The project’s purpose is to look for climate change refugia areas in the Big Horn Mountains. To accomplish this, Turner will help collect specimens from three elevational gradients with specific topographic features that a previous research paper determined may be able to create areas of climate change refugia.
“We will then compare these collections to collections that were taken from the same location 40 years prior,” Turner explains of the research that will continue into the fall semester.
As part of her Udall Scholar award, Turner will spend five days in Tucson, Arizona, at a scholar orientation, where scholars extend their professional network, meet other scholars and alumni and learn new skills.
“I am not a tribal member, but I am passionate about Native American rights and would like to attend the ‘Introduction to Community-Based Research for Tribal and Environmental Health’ pre-orientation option,” Turner says.
The environmental issue that most concerns and interests Turner is invasive plants.
“Invasive species are a threat to the stability of our native ecosystems and cause massive economic damage,” Turner says. “I love Wyoming in all its beauty and want to protect the organisms in our state.”
However, Turner’s life was not always heading in such a positive direction, as she once fell victim to other kinds of invasive species. She started drinking alcohol at age 11, a habit that lasted until she was 20. She dabbled with party drugs and graduated to what she described as “slightly harder stuff and pills.”
“Then, at 20, I started doing heroin via IV. Four years later, I mixed in meth with the heroin and, by the time I got arrested, I had been a transient for two years and was doing meth, heroin and cocaine all together in one shot. And I was doing Xanax,” Turner recalls. “So, it’s really a good thing that I got arrested.”
While she was in the Laramie County Detention Center, matters only got worse. Her dad died of alcoholism in 2017. While her mother, Cindy; Gayle, her grandmother; and Andrea, a friend since childhood, stood by her through thick and thin, Turner was still living a lonely existence behind bars.
“I swear I looked in every dark, filthy nook and cranny searching for love and validation,” she says.
She found an unlikely friend in the jail sergeant, who ran the inmate labor program. Turner had applied repeatedly to become involved with inmate labor, but fights she had with other inmates led to her being denied.
While Turner was receiving a routine health check, the sergeant overheard Turner talking about wanting to better herself.
“From the conversation, he decided to let me into inmate labor. He was the first person out of many whose belief in me set me onto the next stone in my path,” she says. “From there, the deputy who oversaw the inmate labor blocks acted like a hard ass, but also made it very clear that, if any of us needed him, he was there. I took this opportunity to go to him for guidance.”
As a result, Turner decided to ask a judge for the opportunity to go through a treatment program. In January 2019, she arrived at Volunteers of America, a treatment center in Sheridan. By April of that year, she had successfully completed her treatment program; was hired by Landon’s Greenhouse in Sheridan; and followed up with treatment through several voluntary outpatient groups and therapy meetings.
“I stayed in Sheridan for four years. I fell in love with it there,” Turner says. “That’s where I fell in love with nature.”
Turner admits this recent honor still has her in a bit of a fog — but a good one.
“The magnitude of being a Udall Scholar has not yet fully set upon me. I’m still awestruck at the news,” Turner says. “I spoke from the heart. I spoke of my past, and I spoke of the troubles my family has been facing today.
“Most people didn’t even think that I would be alive today, let alone to be the recipient of such blessings,” she adds. “If you had told me, I wouldn’t have believed it.”